Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema — Part 1: Genre Theory & Indian Cinema

The Lunchbox – the train is an ongoing iconographic motif in contemporary Indian cinema.

Determining Iconography

Before assigning the genre concept of iconography to an audio-visual study of trains a brief history of the concept is necessary. This will also mean a consideration of genre theory. Much of the work on iconography can be traced back to the field of art history and Erwin Panofsky (see Studies of Iconology: 1939) who defined iconography as concerning ‘itself with the subject matter or meanings of work of art, as opposed to their form’ (Panofsky, 1939: 3). Panofsky’s break from formal analysis to the potential connotative interpretations of art was predicated on ‘three strata’: ‘primary or natural subject matter’, ‘secondary or conventional subject matter’ (Panofsky, 1939: 5 – 7) and most importantly ‘intrinsic meaning or content’ (Panofsky, 1939: 5 – 7). If primary subject matter is about the basic formal properties whereas secondary subject matter concerns itself with narrative then the final area of intrinsic meaning is the level at which art can be viewed as a symbolic extension of a wider nexus of underlying cultural, philosophical and historical lineages. In other words, iconographic interpretation can only occur in relation to readings from the past since the imposition of subjectivity returns to individuated formal analysis.

The rise of genre theory in the early 1970s , as a counter to authorship, saw theorists including Lawrence Alloway (1971), Ed Buscombe (1970) and later Colin McArthur (1972) develop Panofsky’s idea of iconography. Such theorists were in agreement on the significance of iconography to film as ‘it emphasised the visual motifs and symbolic language of art rather than individual authorship or mythic narrative’ (Flint, 1999: 32). Buscombe decidedly emphasised ‘outer forms’ (2003: 15), identifying iconographic features such as weapons, horses, clothes, defining the western in strictly visual terms. Similarly McArthur in his study of the gangster film talked of understanding iconography conducive to ‘several decades of patterns of visual imagery’ (McArthur, 1972: 118). The limitations of iconography as an emerging genre discipline were evident in the writings of some theorists like McArthur who argued it was ‘an artificial exercise to discuss individual iconographic elements when they exist in dynamic relationship within the fabric of particular films’ (McArthur, 1972: 122). Schatz (1981) expanded on McArthur’s early self-criticisms, positing iconography should be studied in relation to a wider ideological paradigm, taking into account the way ‘a genre’s iconography reflects the value system that defines its particular cultural community’ (Schatz, 1981: 24). All of these developments were uniformly substantial, generating a new genre discourse in which iconography, as a theoretical concept was applicable to the major film genres in western cinema.

During the 1980s the first serious academic work on Indian cinema to have an impact on western misconceptions and fallacies also witnessed some of the earliest and most influential discussions on Indian film genres. This comprised the work of Rosie Thomas, Vijay Mishra, Ravi Vasudevan, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Nasreen Munni Kabir. An essential characteristic of the visual aesthetics attributed to Indian cinema was tableau, used for ‘staging and narrating story events’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 105). Geeta Kapur (1987: 80) talks of tableau in terms of ‘frontality’ that ‘yields forms of direct address; flat, diagrammatic and simply profiled figures’ which comes out of an ‘Indian art tradition’ (Kapur, 1987: 80). Vasudevan expands on the specificities of the tableau mode arguing objects and people are ‘at a 180 plane to the camera and seem to verge on stasis, enclosing meaning within their frame’ (2010: 105 – 106). Further still Vasudevan says although ‘the codes of American continuity are also used’, ‘they are unsystematically deployed’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 106). The combination of tableau and continuity produced a visual sensibility, which in the opinion of Vasudevan made directors like Satyajit Ray complain about ‘the static feature of the commercial film’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 106). Whereas tableau was a universal art tradition, Darshan, ‘the power exercised by the authoritative image in Hindu religious culture’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 114) is a defining feature of Indian cinema specific to Hinduism. The Darshanic gaze works whereby ‘the object gives itself to be seen and in doing so, confers a privilege upon the spectator’ (1998: 75-6). Subsequently, tableau and Darshan could also be labeled iconographically conducive to popular Indian cinema but not specific to any such genres.

Rosie Thomas was one of the earliest academics to criticise the inadequacies of applying wholesale theoretical perspectives to the study of Indian cinema . Thomas ambivalently reasoned ‘Hollywood genre classification is quite inappropriate to Hindi cinema’ (Thomas. 1985: 120) and yet simultaneously genre was ‘potentially useful in opening up questions about Hindi cinema’s distinctive form’ (Thomas, 1985: 120). By refuting the claim Indian cinema was largely derivative and formulaic, Thomas placed a far greater emphasis on distinctive ‘modes of address’ concerned with articulating ‘emotion and spectacle rather than tight narrative’ (Thomas 1985: 120). Also writing in the 1980s, Vijay Mishra determined Indian film genres were a genealogical extension of Hindu mythological history , naming the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as ‘the great code of Bombay Cinema’ (Mishra, 1985: 134) and postulating Indian cinema with its ‘one dominant genre’ (Mishra, 1985: 134), the mythological. The work of Thomas and Mishra re-interpreted Indian cinema from an entirely new perspective in which the Indianness of Hindi cinema could only be measured by its relationship to a wider nexus of mythology, history and visual traditions.

The 1990s, with the proliferation of new media technologies and the rise of globalization, led to the consolidation of visual culture as a new interdisciplinary area of study. In 1998 theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff contended ‘the emergence of visual culture as a subject’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 5) contested the hegemony of ‘the spoken word as the highest form of intellectual practice’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 5). Mirzoeff’s definition of visual culture is worth framing here as it underpins many of the ways in which analysis of media and film texts is predicated on a pictorial understanding: ‘Visual culture is concerned with visual events in which information, meaning or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 3). For Mirzoeff the break with the past in terms of cultural studies seemed to be with the ways in which audiences interacted on a continuous basis of instantaneity with visual technology, seeking pleasure from ‘a sensual immediacy’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 3) presented by visual events and images unfolding in a postmodern context. Mirzoeff’s re-emphasis on visual literacy and the capacity for film to communicate with audiences on strictly visual terms is chiefly imperative for the role of iconography. Undeniably a visual approach helped reclaim the study of Indian cinema from an ideological imperative to one in which the conventions and idioms of Indian film genres are inscribed in predominantly visual terms.

In 2002 Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel published ‘Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film’, exploring ‘the visual components that constitute the very structure of Hindi film’ (Dwyer & Patel, 2002: 10) specifically stars, space, settings and costumes. Dwyer and Patel’s work reiterated the need to study Indian cinema in terms of its potent visual literacy, shifting the focus away from ideological analysis that characteristically modulated formal elements. Dwyer and Patel’s use of the term visual culture can just as easily be read as iconography. Yet their reluctance to use such a term in the context of Hindi cinema stems from connotations with genre theory conducive of western film discourse. Moreover Dwyer and Patel’s approach to the study of visual components avoids categorising iconographic elements under specific film genres. This raises an important question concerning the relationship between genre and Indian cinema that requires exploring further.

The Expanding Work on Indian Film Genres

It would be an impossibility to consider the totality of expanding scholarly work on the role of genre in Indian cinema so I want to briefly outline and consider the work of Mishra, Dudrah, Desai, Prasad and Gopalan. I feel the work of the aforementioned scholars is of particular relevance in arguing for the train as a key component of genre iconography.

Madhava Prasad speaking from an institutional perspective argues ‘generic differentiation’ (Prasad, 1998: 46) was more dominant in the post independence era since the presence of film studios cultivated a ‘distinct identity’ (Prasad, 1998: 47) to their films. This is a point sustained by Mishra’s analysis of Bombay cinema in the 1930s and 1940s: ‘If Prabhat Theatres led the way with socially oriented films, New Theatres continued to work in the romantic hero tradition’ (Mishra, 2002: 23). The emergence of ‘the social’ as a super genre, after the demise of the studio era, erased any attempts to consolidate specific genre categories. Prasad contends the lack of ‘generic differentiation’ (Prasad, 1998: 46) in Indian cinema is conductive to the way the Indian film industry operates and functions. Unlike Hollywood which is ‘marked by a high degree of internal unity’ (Prasad, 1998: 47), Prasad says Hindi cinema is contrastingly ‘marked by the relative autonomy retained by the various elements that flow into the production process’ (Prasad, 1998: 48) including songs, dialogue and stars. This indubitably testifies songs in particular are common to all films not specifically the unhelpful category of the musical genre in Bollywood cinema. In many ways, we can say the same about the presence of the train. Its repeated presence in many types of films transcends any attempts to argue for its status as a genre convention and means of categorising a film. Finally in his discussion of ‘the social’ , Prasad says it is a genre that has persisted over the years mainly because ‘its dominance attests to a certain ideological imperative that is peculiar to the modernizing Indian state’ (Prasad, 1998: 136). By drawing a link between the ideological function of cinema and the politics of the nation Prasad raises a pertinent question: in the context of the train does the iconographic serve a wider ideological obligation? Vijay Mishra takes a similar institutional approach to Prasad discussing Bombay cinema specifically in the 1930s and 1940s as a genre defined by ‘key paradigmatic features’ such as the ‘conflict between tradition and modernity’ (Mishra, 2002: 15). Mishra’s focus on the ‘big studios’ (Mishra, 2002: 17) of the 1930s and 1940s as exemplifying a distinct brand or type of film validates Prasad’s argument regarding the explicitness of ‘generic differentiation’ (Prasad, 1998: 46) and its relationship with prescient ideological concerns.

The argument that generic differentiation all but disappeared after independence because of institutional changes has seen a reversal in terms of new genre configurations in the last fifteen years. In 2001 the Indian film industry experienced its most significant institutional shift since the demise of the studio era with the Indian government finally granting industry status . Dudrah and Desai (2008: 13) argue this brought in new capital and production opportunities ‘both in and beyond India’, leading to the ‘liberalization of Indian cinema as an industry’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 13). Such a shift has seen an augmented cross fertilisation of conventions, creating distinctly innovative genre hybrids. The first of these was Mumbai Noir, fusing traditional crime/gangster elements with a noir like sensibility. Examples include Satya (Truth, 1998), Company (2002) and Sarkar (Government, 2005); all directed by Ram Gopal Verma . It is problematic to pin down whom exactly coined the term Mumbai Noir and if it really constitutes a new genre or a cycle of films. In both cases, one aspect is evident, differentiation is extenuated through elements that are repeated across many of these films occurring both aesthetically and thematically. The most obvious is the urban milieu of a Mumbai underbelly in which many of the films are set.

Gopalan echoing Prasad claims the discontinuous nature of Hindi cinema complicates the process of determining genre. In terms of creating discontinuity Gopalan says Indian popular cinema is strategised on the idea of ‘interruptions’ (Gopalan, 2002: 18). Song and dance sequences and the interval impose a non-linearity preventing the formation of fixed genres with a definitive repertoire of elements. Gopalan goes on to say that ‘the iconography of these sequences of attractions calls our attention to other interests that bolster a spectator’s interests in Indian cinema’ (Gopalan, 2002: 19). If Gopalan is referring here to the way stars, settings and dance are iconographic then it is especially relevant to the ‘attraction’ of the train as a visual spectacle not necessarily tied to any traditional sense of genre conventions. This question yet again problematises the train as strictly iconographic since its function as both attraction and ideology also exacerbates parallel consideration.

Prasad argues for the super genre of the Social that seems to encompass the breadth and domain of Indian popular cinema. Unlike the Social which as a label and means of categorising types of Indian films has lost currency, Dudrah and Desai argue for the Masala film as an on-going way of ‘understanding the genres of Bollywood cinema’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 10). In their opinion the Masala film is defined by song and dance that ‘enable and incorporate multiple forms of performance’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 11) demanding ‘more serious attention’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 11) for their plurality. A point of innovation is the way the train became a key object for song and dance sequences. Its evolution as both a spectacle and narrative device can debatably be tied to the way the Masala genre and other sub genres have evolved over time. Dudrah and Desai dismiss the notion of a super genre claiming other genres and subgenres including Mythological, Historical, Muslim Socials, Romantic films, NRI (Non Resident Indian) films and Horror films are just as important in thinking about film genres. However, they also say such categories ‘operate in a broad and connected sense’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 13). The hybridisation and ‘blending together’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 13) of conventions is not specific to Indian cinema but visible in the hybridised mainstream Hollywood blockbuster film , which in essence is Masala like in its fusion of genre elements. In fact, Steve Neale, citing David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson (1985), says ‘nearly all Hollywood films were hybrids in so far as they always tended to combine one type of generic plot, a romance plot with others’ (Neale, 1990: 57). This argument returns to the myth of pure genres and by doing so reiterates the need to explore the homogeneity of the train as a multi accentual device in terms of narrative, political and representational purposes, which is what I intend to explore in the coming parts.


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